This past year at the American Cheese Society Awards, newcomer Lark’s Meadow Farms won in both the American farmstead and the aged sheep’s milk categories. Cheesemaker Kendall Russell won for his cheese, Dulcinea (a great cheese we featured in the winter and a personal fav). It was there that I met Kendall, proud as a papa, glowing with the praise of his wonderful cheese. After I tasted his cheese, I immediately introduced myself and proceeded to gush about his creation. I learned the captivating story of Lark’s Meadow Farms and of Kendall’s other equally delightful cheeses.
Our current Cheese of the Month is Dulcinea’s sister cheese, Helen. Helen is essentially the same as Dulcinea but made with cow’s milk instead of sheep’s milk. We were lucky enough to have Kendall take a second between his daily milking/ gardening/ cheesemaking/affineuring/marketing in order to answer some questions and give us some insight into his world. Make sure to come in soon and try some Helen, as it won’t be on sale for much longer.
Adam: What made you decide to undertake the Herculean task of cheese-making?
Kendall: I never in a million years thought I would be a cheesemaker, although I have loved all kinds of cheese since I was a child. It all started with a cheese making kit from New England Cheese Making Supply. I made a few cheeses and they were awful, I mean really awful, good for hockey pucks and door stops. So I did what any stubborn person would do who had a background in microbiology and biochemistry- I started reading lots of books on cheesemaking. I learned the importance of selecting the right bacterial starter cultures, curd size, synersis, pH curves, terminal pH, milk chemistry and much more. All these things control your texture, flavor and how soon your cheese is ready. As I was getting into the thick of being a very serious cheese hobbyist while living in Richmond Virgina, my new father in-law called and asked what I thought about making cheese for a living on his farm in Rexburg, Idaho near Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. I told my father in-law that sounds like a great idea and down the rabbit hole we went. We packed up and left 20 years on the east coast behind with the dream of making raw milk sheep and cow cheese that would equal if not surpass the high bar of European cheese.
Adam: How did you decide upon the name Helen?
Kendall: Helen, what a wonderful name. Helen was chosen for several reasons. The only significant formal cheese making training I received was from Helen Feete at Meadow Creek dairy in Galax, Virginia. During my short internship at Meadow Creek, Helen shared freely of her knowledge of more than a decade of cheese making triumphs and failures and the overall experience of building their family’s successful farm. We have had our share of tough times and heartbreak in getting our farm up and running but my experience with Helen has saved our farm and cheese from many serious hiccups that could have been fatal to our nascent cheesemaking endeavor. So, we have paid humble homage to Helen at Meadow Creek by naming a cheese after her, a beautiful person in every way. All of our cheeses also have literary references, some obvious some obscure; Helen -of Troy, Dulcinea -Man from La Mancha, won’t give them all away.
Adam: What are the elements that give Helen its distinct character?
Kendall: There is a saying “nothing new under the sun.” Cheese is an ancient food and it is hard to be completely original with a food type so old. Helen is our expression of the raw milk Alpine cheese archetype. True Alpine “Alpage” cheese is/was made from the milk of a small family flock or herd made in semi-primitive huts at different altitudes on the Alps. Helen Feete taught me not force the milk to be something is was not. Our farm is located at the confluence of the rugged upper Snake river and Teton river valleys at an altitude of 4865 feet, so we choose to embrace a style of cheese that reflects our “terroir”, or taste of the land, so to speak. Our land is blessed with rich volcanic soils from ancient explosions in the Yellowstone caldera just 50 miles north of our farm, so we have rich pastures and alfalfa that is some of the best in the nation. The rich feed, pasture grasses and herbage pass subtle flavors on to the milk which are intensified in the cheesemaking and aging process. Raw milk cultures native to our area also add a unique tang and depth of flavor that cannot be duplicated by commercial cheese starters. Further, our Brown Swiss cows have more protein and butter fat than your average milk cow, and it is the controlled breakdown of fat and protein that gives cheese its wonderful flavors. Also, we hand press Helen. Hand pressing gives more flexibility than mechanical pressing does, and keeps you connected to the cheesemaking longer, helping to ensure that texture and flavor is consistent. Helen is also a cave aged cheese, meaning it’s allowed to form a natural mold rind instead of being plastic or wax coated. The molds in the rind help break down fat and protein, providing unique flavors to the cheese in the rind that contrast with those in the interior of the cheese. Lastly there is me, the cheesemaker, not unlike a conductor at a symphony. It is my job to help bring out the best of what our milk has to offer throughout the seasons. Although cheesemaking has a basic set of steps to go from milk to curd to cheese, each cheesemaker has their own unique way of moving through the steps that gives their cheeses character.
Adam: Do you have any plans for developing any new cheeses?
There are several sheep and cow cheeses in the works at any given time in addition to our regular cheese line up. We let the folks at the farmers markets do the testing of who goes and who stays on for more fine tuning. If you want a sneak peak, try the Jackson Hole, WY Saturday or Wednesday farmers markets, the down town Salt Lake farmers market or Park city in UT or the Driggs farmers market in Idaho. It is kind of like American Idol for cheese, we know we are onto something good when they can’t pick one cheese over the other. It takes us usually a season and a half to really get a cheese dialed in, so two winners from last season should be ready late summer/early fall this year.
Adam: What are your top three favorite cheeses?
Kendall: Top three cheeses, arrrrrgh that’s tough. Caveman Blue or Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery- creamy, peppery and salty/sweet. Grayson from Meadow Creek Dairy – pungent roadkill outside and creamy, buttery and meaty inside. Bandage wrapped cheddar from Bleu Mont Dairy/ Willi Lenher. I could eat this cheddar all day long, this is what cheddar was meant to be- crumbly but melt in your mouth explosion of flavor, think the best cheddar you have ever had and cross it with the best Parmigiano Reggiano you have ever had.